- The 59-year-old Indian American is joined by Bangladeshi American Nina Ahmad in City & State’s “Pennsylvania Power of Diversity” list.
Neeli Bendapudi, the 19th president of Penn State, and the university’s first female president and first president of color has been named in City & State’s “Pennsylvania Power of Diversity” list of 100 of the state’s most influential female leaders. The 59-year-old Indian American, “who leads one of the nation’s largest universities and an academic powerhouse, is well known for her prodigious fundraising and financial acumen,” City & State says.
Joining Bendapudi on the list is Bangladeshi American Nina Ahmad, co-owner of JNA Capital, a real estate financing and development outfit, and head of the National Organization for Women’s Pennsylvania chapter. A former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, she ran for election for Pennsylvania Auditor General in 2020 and lost in the general election. She was the first immigrant and person of color ever to be nominated by Democrats for statewide executive office in the state.
Before joining Penn State this July, Bendapudi served as president of the University of Louisville. She notably took swift action to remove the name of Papa John’s from the Louisville football stadium and erased its founder’s name from the school of business after pizza mogul and former Louisville trustee John Schnatter was heard using the N-word on a Papa John’s conference call, Courier-Journal reported.
Similar to her previous job, she has been using her expertise and acumen to tackle the several challenges Penn State is facing. In a recent interview, she told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she’d recently had to make difficult decisions, but ones she thought to be right for Penn State. Some of her decisions worked, while some received criticism. But Bendapudi has stood her ground.
In the past few weeks, she’s been facing backlash for her decision to cancel the plan to build a Center for Racial Justice. During a town hall hosted by the university’s faculty senate on Nov. 18, she defended her decision. She told attendees that the university should “focus on existing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and set concrete metrics around closing racial disparities and recruiting diverse faculty,” as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. She promised “to report back to faculty in early 2023 about her review of the university’s existing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” the report added.
Following her announcement in October to nix the center, more than 400 faculty members who signed a letter accusing the university of “backsliding” on racial justice issues, The Philadelphia Inquirer said. The center, which was announced last year by former president Eric Barron, “grew out of the university’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and stemmed from a yearlong review into racism and bias at the university,” the report added.
Bendapudi is also faced with helping solve the university’s $127 million budget deficit “she did not anticipate,” PA Spotlight notes. As a cost-cutting measure, she has recommended reuniting the university’s two separately accredited law schools into one. Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle and Penn State Law at University Park would become Penn State Dickinson Law, with its primary location in Carlisle and led by current Dickinson Law Dean Danielle Conway, State College News reported. The move would also lead to “significant” savings, Bendapudi told Central Daily Times. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the university has pledged to close a $140 million deficit over the next two years.
Bendapudi was raised in Andhra Pradesh, the oldest of three girls. In an interview at a women’s summit hosted by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in 2011, a video of which is posted on YouTube, she recalled how her mother was advised, time and again, not to be sad to have only daughters. “Don’t be sad you only have daughters, who knows what you did in your previous life.” It was these words that made her more ambitious, she told the summit attendees. She followed in her father’s footsteps and attended the University of Kansas, where she earned a doctorate in marketing.
Before being named Louisville’s president in April 2018, Bendapudi was the provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas, where she previously earned a Ph.D. in marketing in 1994. She was a professor of marketing for two years at Texas A&M and 15 years at Ohio State before returning to Kansas in 2011 to become the School of Business dean and a professor of business.
Nina Ahmad serves as a committee person in Philadelphia’s 9th Ward, and is a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, where she chairs the AAPI Constituency Caucus. A first-generation American, Ahmad became Philadelphia’s first Asian American cabinet member as deputy mayor of public engagement. Most recently, she served as a deputy mayor for Public Engagement under Philadelphia Mayor James Francis Kenney. She also served as a member of the National Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the Obama administration.
In 2018, she finished second in 2018 primary for lieutenant governor. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that Ahmad and her husband, real estate developer Ahsan Nasratullah, “had spent more than $1 million in those races combined.” Ahmad told the paper that both she and her husband “believe it’s important to elect women to state-wide offices.”
Ahmad came to the United States alone at age 21. She waitressed and worked other minimum wage jobs before earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and later worked as a medical scientist at Wills Eye Hospital and Thomas Jefferson Medical College. She and her husband live in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia where they raised two daughters, Priya and Joya.